Bands Rushing To Ditch Labels And Embrace Free; Are The Floodgates Opening?

from the tipping-point dept

We've only been predicting that music would eventually go free for about a dozen years, but it feels like we may be nearing a tipping point among musicians recognizing this simple truth as well, kicked off by last week's Radiohead announcement. Suddenly, similar announcements seem to be coming fast and furious. Apparently both Oasis and Jamiroquai are interested in following Radiohead's lead and the Charlatan's (managed by a member of Oasis) is already doing the same. On top of that, Trent Reznor proudly announced today that Nine Inch Nails is now free from its record label contract. Will.i.am, from the band The Black Eyed Peas, announced "the new distributor is your niece" in discussing how he plans to promote his new solo album.

There are two key things to note in all of this. First, all these bands feel the need to ditch big record labels to do this (and, no, that doesn't mean that small bands without recording contracts can't succeed this way too). This is a sad state of affairs for the record labels -- because there still should be a place for them in helping to promote and market a band, even if they're giving away the music for free. It's just that they're not venture capitalists any more and bands don't need help in distributing content -- two businesses the record labels insist they're in. What's really sad here is how clueless the record labels remain to this reality. In a Reuters article about the Radiohead move, a record industry insider mistakenly claims that this trend is going to hurt the music business because bands will rush out singles instead of albums. Apparently that insider only read the first half of the details of what Radiohead is doing (as well as what others are doing). They're doing exactly the opposite. They've put together a whole "discbox" with lots of extras to make it more compelling to buy. Will.i.am specifically made his latest album a "cohesive story" to encourage people to buy the whole album. Reznor purposely tried to make his CD as cool as possible (it changes colors when you play it in a CD player) to encourage people to buy it -- even as he tells people at concerts to download his songs.

That brings up the second key point. For all the whining about "free" music, the complainers keep missing the fact that free is only a part of the business model. This seems to be the thing that people get most confused about when we discuss business models around free music. They get stuck on free and assume that if something's free, there's no way to make money. But, all of these bands are showing exactly the opposite is true. The Times Online has a story incorrectly headlined "The day the music industry died" discussing these exact changes, but as you read the details, the music industry is doing just fine -- it's just the folks in the recording industry who are in trouble. Musicians are raking in record revenue from concerts -- and the artists are realizing that the free music only helps generate more interest in those concerts. Listen to Alan McGee from Oasis and the Charlatans, saying that giving away the music for free was a can't miss proposition: "We increase our fan base, we sell more merchandise, more fans talk about the band and we get more advertising and more films (soundtracks). More people will get into the the Charlatans and will probably pay the money to see the show. I presume it will double the gig traffic, maybe even treble it."

In other words, more bands are recognizing exactly what a bunch of folks knew was inevitable at least a decade ago. Unshackle the music, give it away free, and use it to make a lot of other stuff a lot more valuable, and there's plenty of money to be made. The only sad part in all of this is that the record labels have been not just blind to the idea -- they've actively tried to discredit anyone who pointed it out to them.

Filed Under: business models, economics, music, oasis, radiohead, trent reznor


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  1. identicon
    Annoyed Musician, 10 Oct 2007 @ 7:44am

    I see a lot of "it has to be free, you're sticking your head in the sand" but I'm still not getting legitimate, logical, plausible examples of alternate sources of income. Other than that, this is a great discussion ;-)

    Let's get something straight here, right off the bat. I'm not a major player. I actually just came out of semi-retirement, as I've spent the last seven years as an open source developer instead. Yes, I come from another industry where everyone just assumes you live on freaking AIR. But I digress.

    I live in a major metropolitan area, so I can gig without having to tour. The gigs on such a small scale typically don't even cover the costs of having a place to rehearse. And you know what? I'm just like thousands (millions?) of other musicians out there, working a real job while trying to find a way to survive doing what I love.

    You say "I'm not sure why you keep repeating the false claim that there aren't other business models out there. We've pointed out plenty of examples, and explained the economics at work. It's not hard to come up with plenty of other ideas if you didn't want to blame everyone else for not handing you money on a silver platter." but fail to respect the cold hard reality that in order to produce music you burn time, effort and money. "Music" doesn't just spring out of the rear end of the Music Fairy™. The creation of music requires years of effort, significant investment in equipment, and dedication.

    So to you that has no value. To me that is a slap in the face. All of this is worthless, and what I really need to do is sell t-shirts?

    Let's flip this discussion around where it belongs, as musicians are still making music like they always have. In a sense, the musicians and their music isn't what is causing all the upheaval. The internet has made it possible for the bands to connect directly to the fans, leaving the distributors and middle-men scrambling for alternatives.

    However, this universal hatred for the labels is now being forced on the bands themselves, as folks are switching from the "getting reamed by EMI" realities of decades past to "getting a free ride". Telling the bands they have to find other ways to get paid for their work - when everyone really was screwed by the labels (including the artists) - is a case of decapitation for dandruff.

    Knowing that I spend a couple thousand dollars on a decent rig, another couple thousand dollars on recording equipment (or equivalent studio time), and countless hours creating this music, can someone succinctly and intelligently justify that you are entitled to enjoy those efforts without needing to pay for it?

    Maybe I'm not the one sitting around making demands, expecting things on a silver platter. I'm not demanding anything for free. I'm not telling people their time, effort and investment is worthless. I've spent thousands of hours of my time over the past years giving away for free, volunteering my time to help others, and making a difference in this world - and not expecting anything in return but the occasional hand shake or pat on the back.

    How about you? Does having an MP3 player somehow entitle you to a lifetime supply of free music from people that put significant effort into creating it for you?

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